Tag Archives: ethics

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

Voluntourism – where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment – is a growing industry. I look at most of it with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the needs of critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

Also see:

 

Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersBack in 2009, the Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire, in England, featured one of my posts from UKVPMs (a discussion group for volunteer managers in the United Kingdom) on its blog in response to an article that says treating volunteers like employees is a great idea. I’m flattered that they thought my thoughts so worthy!

Here was the situation that I commented on:

In this commentary in the Guardian, the writer talks about a volunteer DJ at a small Christian radio project in South Manchester, England, who was fired when staff became aware that he is gay. The writer’s conclusion is that the employment laws need to apply to volunteers in order to protect them from being fired for no good reason.

Here was my response from UKVPMs (edited a bit for clarity):

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff are not required to do: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a right. I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” Legally protected? If so, legally protected how?

The primary consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the primary consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably most organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

And I still don’t.

Requirements to volunteer are getting out of hand

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersThere are requirements in some school districts for students to perform a certain number of volunteering hours with nonprofit organizations. And courts across the USA often sentence law breakers to work unpaid – to volunteer – a certain number of hours with nonprofit organizations.

I’ve not been opposed to these requirements, though I do feel that schools and courts need to sit down with nonprofits and talk about the costs of such volunteer engagement for nonprofits. Organizations are not sitting around saying, “Gee, we’ve got all this work to do, I wish some people would come do it for free.” Volunteers are not free: they must be screened, supervised and supported. Tasks must be created for volunteers, and nonprofits have NO obligation to accept every person that says they want to volunteer. If you want nonprofits to involve more high school students or court-assigned volunteers, you are going to have to fund these nonprofits so that they have the resources to do that.

Now, I’m reading about governors and state legislators in the USA wanting to require even more people to volunteer.

For instance, as of January 2016, more than 17,000 food stamp recipients in eight Kentucky counties had to begin part-time work, education or volunteer activities to keep their benefits. Childcare is not provided for these food stamp recipients for their part-time work, education activities or volunteering time.

In addition, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin wants to require unemployed Medicaid members to volunteer in order to receive those benefits.

Danielle Clore, executive director of the Kentucky Nonprofit Network, had a lot to say to Bevin’s office when it asked the group to support his proposal:

The bottom line is this will cost nonprofits money – money and resources we don’t have to spare. It takes professionals to effectively manage volunteers. For the experience to be valuable for both the agency and the individual, volunteer efforts have to be managed. Is it worth the limited and precious resources of a nonprofit to manage a volunteer that is there because ‘they have to be,’ not because they want to be? Nonprofit employees are spread so thin as it is and I feel like a volunteer requirement for anyone not truly committed to the mission of the agency isn’t an effective use of anyone’s time.

I do not typically take people who are ‘required’ to volunteer, because they don’t make good volunteers. Also, 20 hours is A LOT OF TIME. We don’t allow people to volunteer that many hours because at that point they could be considered a part time employee employee, and you have potential legal issues to consider.

Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, told Kentucky Health News in an interview, “We need to provide them with the support services that they need, but forcing people to volunteer in order to get health care doesn’t make anybody healthier. We know this. There are data to suggest that. In fact, sometimes these stringent requirements put people in a position where they are unable to get care and then they get sick, and they are unable to work.”

I have nothing to add to Ms. Clore and Ms. Beauregard’s comments – they are RIGHT ON.
Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina also now have these requirements people receiving food stamps must volunteer with a community service provider for a certain number of hours.

Here’s another example, and it may be even worse: in the proposed budget by Ohio Governor John Kasich, House Bill 49, he stealthily includes a line item requiring all licensed educators in Ohio to complete an unpaid internship with a local business or chamber of commerce as a condition of license renewal. As written, this requirement would extend to all educators — including teachers, principals, superintendents, and other school administrators — licensed by the Ohio Department of Education. This shameful proposal is wonderfully skewered in this editorial by Sue Grodek. Kasich is insulting teachers, who must already complete vast numbers of hours of classroom time and teacher training, by requiring them to be free labor for business-focused organizations, implying that teachers lack “real world” experience. It’s absolutely outrageous!

There’s no question that these requirement for volunteering from certain groups is now out-of-control. If you want to require any group to volunteer, you had better sit down, face-to-face, with leaders of organizations that involve volunteers, and work really hard to get their buy-in. You had better be able to say why it is to the organizations’ benefit to involve these people – and you had better not say it will save them money, because it will NOT. In fact, you had better have money to offer to cover the substantial costs of asking them to increase the number of volunteers they involve. And most of all, you better have data showing that this type of required volunteering is needed by the volunteers themselves. 

Nonprofits: if you aren’t worried about this now, then wake up. You have every right to write your state and national legislators, as well as local media, and tell them NO. It’s never been more important for your organization to create a mission statement just for your volunteer involvement. Otherwise, you can expect not only increased expenses as you take on more volunteers you didn’t recruit yourself, but also an even bigger backlash against all volunteering.

Will the various associations of directors of volunteers in agencies (DOVIAs) and associations of managers of volunteers and what not take a public stand on this issue? I’m not holding my breath. But kudos to the Kentucky Nonprofit Network and the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and others for taking a strong public stand against political moves that will damage nonprofits and their clients.

Also see:

Involving volunteers: a cop out for paying staff?

Nurses in the Philippines are angry. They are being forced to work for free, or for a stipend on which they cannot live, while the hospitals where they are working call them “volunteers.” Some hospitals are even charging nurses for their “volunteer” work experience. Thousands of graduate nurses are paying hospitals and working for months without salaries under the guise of “training,” so the nurses can gain work experience and have an improved chance of being employed as a regular staff eventually. As a result of this exploitation, nurses have filed cases against four hospitals through the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment – National Labor Relations Commission in February and March. Nurses have also sought the help of a Philippines political party, the Ang Nars Party, which has been using its Facebook page to highlight their campaign against what they are calling “false volunteerism”. (Thanks, oh-so-awesome DJ Cronin, for the heads up about this situation!)

You can read more about this situation at the Nursing News, March 2, 2017, but be warned: this is a click-bait site, packed with advertising banners and in-text advertising links.

I am, of course, outraged about this situation in the Philippines. It’s the same outrage that prompted me to call on the United Nations to defend its involvement of full-time, unpaid interns. It’s not only horrible that these nurses are being exploited; these kinds of actions create campaigns opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work). No doubt the hospitals in the Philippines have happily talked about the value of volunteering only in terms of money saved in not paying staff, just as ILO, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, UNV, and others have encouraged them to do.  The result of this exploitation will be a further backlash against all volunteering in hospitals in the Philippines – and beyond. The fight against unpaid internships hurts volunteering. And all of this is because so many organizations see volunteers only as a way to not pay staff, to save money.

If you do not have a  written statement that explains explicitly why your organization reserves certain tasks / assignments / roles for volunteers, including unpaid interns, and that statement has NOTHING to do with not having enough money to pay staff, then you have no business involving volunteers, or unpaid interns, or whatever it is you want to call people you aren’t paying for work.

Good luck to the nurses in the Philippines. And good luck to hospitals in justifying future engagement of volunteers after making so many enemies to the term.

Also see:

That moment when you totally change your mind about volunteer engagement

wizardAn email I received a few days ago. I’ve changed it a bit to hide the identity of the author:

I want to thank you, sincerely, for challenging me to think about my understanding of volunteering. You really got me thinking. I had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me last night, and the discussions around mandated community service and volunteerism kept rolling around in my mind. In my current role, I haven’t really had to think about court mandated service as volunteering and from personal experience, I don’t know if those mandated, would consider themselves volunteers? I am trying to resolve this, for my own benefit at this stage, and I am finding it quite difficult! I intend on mulling this over a bit more. I trying to consider the benefits/detriment of either belief…. Challenged? Yes!

I love making people uncomfortable about volunteer engagement. I love challenging oh-so-solid notions about who is and isn’t a volunteer, the value of volunteering, and why people volunteer. Why? Because volunteer engagement is so much bigger than just, “We’ve got work to do. Let’s get some good-hearted people to do it for free!”, and I so want this mentality to change!

The results of this? I’ve made people angry. I’ve made people tear up. Some people have double-downed on their oh-so-rigid definitions. But most, while challenged, have also been inspired. They don’t all come to the exact same conclusions as me regarding volunteer engagement and its value, but they definitely broaden their original ideas.

I remember my big ah ha moment regarding volunteer engagement, via an event by Triumph motorcycles. And my blog, Should the NFL involve volunteers for the Super Bowl?, talks further about why I changed my mind about volunteers supporting for-profit settings, in certain situations.

Want me to challenge your organization? Complete details about my consulting services.

Also see:

Have you ever changed your mind?

Volunteer manager Fight Club

Kentucky politicians think volunteers are free

Seal_of_KentuckyKentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, a Republican, is working to end kynect, the state’s widely-lauded health insurance exchange and one of the most successful under the federal Affordable Health Care Act. His proposal will transition enrollees to the federal health insurance exchange. His new health care plan would also require “able-bodied” adults on the plan and without jobs to take a job training course, get regular job counseling, or do community service for nonprofit organizations.

Last week, administration representatives were asked at a committee meeting by Kentucky State Representative Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat, if any state funding had been allocated to support the cost of background checks for volunteers required to do community service. The answer was that “any nonprofit that chooses to conduct background checks would need to cover the costs.” In other words, the state government will require community service of certain people, and expects nonprofits to accommodate these people with volunteering opportunities, but will not cover any of the costs associated with screening the people, let alone the substantial costs of training and supervising them.

There was also a concern voiced at the meeting about volunteers being asked to cover the cost of their own background check; many organizations do require this, and the people being required to do community service in order to keep their health insurance will largely represent people with low incomes. This issue was identified by Kentucky State Senator Julie Raque Adams, a Republican, as a “red herring;” Adams asserted that many organizations don’t really need criminal background checks, and she based this assertion on her children’s volunteer experiences.

All of the aforementioned information was related by the Kentucky Nonprofit Network via their Facebook page and an article in The Interior Journal, serving Lincoln County, Kentucky.

Senator Adams’ comments about background checks, and those of representatives of the governor’s office, are deeply disturbing, showing a woeful lack of understanding of volunteer engagement and risk management, one that is similar to the US Congress. As noted by the Kentucky Nonprofit Network:

The perception of societal benefit and an overwhelming need for volunteers by the sector seemed to outweigh any recognition of the realities of the true costs of managing a volunteer program (or influx of volunteer requests) – supervision, management, support, background checks (including the reality that this isn’t a luxury – it may be required to protect vulnerable populations), etc. Perhaps this is true – is there a dire need for volunteers?

The network is asking this question via Facebook – and so far, no nonprofits are saying, “Hurrah! An influx of volunteers! Just what we needed!”

It’s obvious that the Governor’s office did not do any research regarding nonprofits in the state and their needs regarding volunteers, and certainly no research regarding the substantial costs associated with involving volunteers.

In addition, K.J. Owens of Louisville won applause from the overflow crowd in Frankfort at a public hearing regarding the proposal when he said the plan “seems motivated by the concern that poor people are defective morally . . . that poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. The people on Medicaid are in no more need of moral guidance than the governor and the people on the governor’s staff.”

On a different but equally disturbing note, Bevin’s proposal also would eliminate dental and vision coverage now included in Medicaid Several other speakers expressed the same concern about excluding dental benefits in a state with some of the worst oral health in the nation, including one of the highest rates of adults with no teeth.

More information about the proposal, as well as a platform to comment on this proposal to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, can be found via the website chfs.ky.gov, and I call on all nonprofits back in my home state, all volunteers for those nonprofits, and anyone who cares about this issue, to give feedback via this state web site!

Congrats to the Kentucky Nonprofit Network for focusing on this issue. That’s what state agencies should be doing, and too many do not. It will be interesting to see if AL!VE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement) will address this issue at all. This is a big deal, and nonprofits all over the country, not just in Kentucky, need to pay attention!

Let’s hope Bevin doesn’t get any ideas from the U.K.’s disasterous Big Society efforts from a few year’s back (UK as in United Kingdom, not the University of Kentucky…).

Update: August 14, 2016 letter to Deputy Chief of Staff Office of the Governor, Matthew G. Bevin from Danielle Clore, Executive Director/CEO, Kentucky Nonprofit Network. It asks very tough questions about this proposal – which have not yet been answered.

Volunteers are NOT free.

humanitarian stories & photos – use with caution

whitesaviorbarbieIf you are going abroad, particularly to developing countries, even just for vacation rather than a humanitarian mission, be really careful and respectful in what you write for the public about your travels, including your use of social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -, and what photos you take and post. Think about a post or photo carefully before you publish: is it accurate? Is it enlightening? Could it be seen as patronizing? What would the people I’m talking about say if they read what I said/saw my photos? Would it be acceptable for a stranger to talk about your community, and share photos of your children, on their blog in the way you are about to?

Earlier this month, National Public Radio did a story about how Zambians, other Africans and aid workers are using social media to show factual errors and condescending remarks in a memoir by British actress Louise Linton about her gap year. The hashtag being used is #LintonLies.

An excerpt from Linton’s book:

I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Really? THAT moment was that child’s GREATEST JOY?! And that is the kind of circumstance that makes you feel not out of place? She also talks in her memoir about child soldiers in Zambia – something that is not actually an issue in Zambia. Throughout her book, she confuses Zambia with Congo and Rwanda. The Zambian embassy in London has even called her out.

And then there’s actress Debra Messing, who seems similarly confused about Africa being a country, and posted photos online recently that gave people the impression that her message was more about “look where I am!” than the people she was supposed to be there FOR on behalf of two NGOs, as dissected by a commentator at Jezebel.

It all looks like ‘White Savior Barbie’ come to life – White Savior Barbie is an Instagram account that hilariously parodies volunteer selfies in developing countries, as highlighted in this article on the Huffington Post. There’s also an article in the satirical magazine The Onion that mocks voluntourism , joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Messing. I know that they had good intentions. And we’ve all done things out of ignorance that we later, often quickly, regret. We all make cultural missteps. We all make communications missteps. And aid workers can get quite carried away in an ongoing and very smug game of more-in-tune-with-people-and-not-acting-privileged-than-thou when they mock volunteer humanitarians and others, and that can be just as bad as the missteps they mock. I’ve been called out a few times for things I’ve written my blogs from developing countries – sometimes I haven’t agreed with those criticisms, sometimes I have. But I hope I’ve never come from a place of “look at me going to save all these poor people!”

I also hope these missteps don’t stop people from sharing their adventures online, including photos:

UNICEF recognizes the enormous power of visual imagery such as this to engage, inform and inspire audiences – and to advocate for children’s rights. Photographs or film footage that depict real life situations of children, and UNICEF programmes supporting supporting them, are one of the most effective ways to communicate these issues. — UNICEF Guidelines: Protecting children’s rights in corporate partner image use, viewed online in July 2016. More UNICEF photo guidelines here

I learn so much reading various posts on social media from people working in developing countries. It’s brave to put yourself and your thoughts and opinions out there, for public consumption. But be ready to revisit what you’ve said and thought online when it comes under public criticism.

And aid agencies, PLEASE train your workers, including volunteers and celebrity representatives, on how to use social media – and what not to do – before they start their work abroad or go on a field visit.

Check out this code of conduct resource from Child Rights International Network regarding taking photos of children in developing countries (really, anywhere).

Update October 21, 2016:  “a hot mess” of “neo-colonialism, racism, hypocrisy and privilege.” A Christian ministry feels the backlash of a very ill-thought video of their impressions of Uganda. Another story about the video from NPR’s Goats & Soda.

Update May 10, 2017: A photo of a young girl being raped, used by the magazine LensCulture to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum, a prestigious photo agency, violated UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on reporting on children by showing the victim’s face, which makes her identifiable, and lacked any explanation regarding the enslavement and abuse of the girl. The incident also brought attention to a broader issue in photojournalism: how the Western media depicts — and often demeans — young women and girls in poor countries. More about the incident here (the photo is NOT shown on this page).

Also see:

Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

justiceThe most popular blog I’ve ever published, by far, is an exposé of a for-profit company based in Florida, called Community Service Help, Inc., that claimed it could match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. But the community service was watching videos. The company was selling paperwork saying people have completed virtual volunteering, that those people then turn into probation officers and the courts. The practice is at least unethical, and, according to at least one state, illegal.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people to fake community service. And as a promoter of virtual volunteering since 1994, before I even knew it was called virtual volunteering, I also have a real problem with someone claiming watching videos is online volunteering. And, for those that might not know, here’s what real, legitimate virtual volunteering looks like. And here’s a wiki about virtual volunteering with even more detailed information.

Community Service Help isn’t the only company selling paperwork to people that need community service hours for the courts, and I’ve mentioned some of the other companies that are pulling off this scam in several blogs (all linked from the end of this one). Actually, I should it wasn’t the only company – its web site went offline in January 2016 and is now for sale. Hurrah!

Companies like Community Service Help post frequently to Craigslist, and I try to keep up on these folks, especially news stories about them, but somehow, I missed this story from 2014!

Caffeine group admits community-service scam

By JENNIFER PELTZ – Associated Press – Thursday, August 7, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) – An anti-caffeine activist pleaded guilty Thursday in a scheme to make court-ordered community service as easy as taking an online quiz.

Marina Kushner and the Caffeine Awareness Association, a group she founded, each pleaded guilty to a false-filing felony. Kushner’s promised sentence includes a $5,000 fine – and 300 hours of legitimate community service.

“A community service sentence is a public and personal responsibility,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said last week in unveiling the case. Kushner’s lawyer, Peter Schaffer, declined to comment Thursday.

Kushner, 47, was arrested recently in Delray Beach, Florida. While Manhattan prosecutors became suspicious after a local defendant filed a letter from the caffeine association to satisfy a community service sentence, questions also had arisen in Washington state and Oregon about a “fast community service” website linked to the group.

The association still exists, offering debunked claims about caffeine, but there’s no page anymore on its web site, at least that I can find, called “quick community service.”

I’ve written and sent a letter to Mr. Vance, thanking him for his pursuit of this company. I’m hoping other prosecutors all over the USA  will take similar action. These companies damage nonprofits, damage courts, damage the idea of community service.

Is it possible, or even appropriate, for people that have been assigned community service hours by the court to do some or all of those hours online? Are they eligible for virtual volunteering? Yes, they are. Here’s detailed advice on supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings, which I hope nonprofits, probation officers and court representatives will read. And note that Community Service Help and other similar companies would not hold up to the scrutiny recommended in this blog.

My other blogs on these companies that sell virtual volunteering and other community service in order to fool probation officers and courts, which include links to the various media articles about these companies:

Haters gonna hate, November 2014 update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

Online community service company tries to seem legit, a November 2013 update about efforts these companies are making to seem legitimate

Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

Online volunteer scam goes global, a July 2011 update with links to TV stories trying to expose these scam companies

Courts being fooled by online community service scams, an update from November 2011 that is the most popular blog I’ve ever published

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIf you regularly read my blog and web site materials or have seen me present, then you know just how strongly I believe in the importance of the involvement of volunteers in nonprofit/mission-based causes. I believe that volunteer engagement represents community investment, can allow people from different walks of life to be associated with a cause more deeply than just donating money, can allow people who don’t want to or cannot quit their day jobs to be involved in a cause, educates people about a cause through firsthand experiences, and can demonstrate the organization’s transparency regarding decision-making and administration. Service activities can educate volunteers to be better advocates for a cause, even change their behavior or feelings regarding certain issues, activities and groups. And I believe any of these reasons are far, far better reasons for involving volunteers than to save money by not paying staff.

I feel so strongly about the importance of volunteer engagement that when I see nonprofit organizations that don’t involve volunteers in some way, it makes me suspicious of them – how invested is this organization in the community it’s supposed to serve if it isn’t letting the community participate behind-the-scenes? How much does this organization really want to be a part of the community if the only way I can be a part of that organization is to work for it, professionally?

But I also have to say that I am wary of the value of a lot of volunteer activities, much more so now, having worked for international humanitarian aid and development agencies for more than 15 years. I regularly witness or hear about volunteering activities abroad and right here in the USA that are more about making the givers of service feel good than about benefitting the cause that the organization is supposed to serve. Voluntourism gets accused of this a lot: people going for a week or two to a poor community, usually in another country, and doing things that local people would love to do themselves, and be paid to do themselves, like build wells, build schools, repair houses, play with orphans, teach a few English classes, etc. Do those activities primarily benefit local people or a critical cause, or are they actually more about being great money-makers for organizations, including religious groups, that know Westerners will pay big bucks for a feel-good volunteering experience and lots of touching photos of them in exotic or devastated locations? There are even tragic consequences from this kind of volunteering, such as the rise of orphan voluntourism, where children that are NOT orphans are presented as such, in need of help from short-term international volunteers, people with little or no expertise regarding the needs of at-risk children.

An article from December 2015 in Cracked captured my wariness about some volunteering, particularly around the holidays. It’s called “5 Realities Of A Homeless Shelter At Christmas.” Regarding homeless shelters, the article notes:

These charities exist to help people with serious problems. They do not exist to round up sideshows and parade them around for gawkers, or to help regular folks gain perspective on their own lives. Surprisingly, not everyone is aware of this.

The article also notes:

Remember, these people are homeless for a reason. We don’t mean “because they’re jerks and deserve it”; we mean that mental illness and substance abuse issues run rampant. If you reserve your charitable feelings only for those capable of showing gratitude in some satisfying way, you’ll be neglecting the ones who need help the most. They show their gratitude by still being alive the next time Christmas comes around.

This all came to mind recently when I found an article about a young boy who created his own nonprofit so he, personally, could hand out food to homeless people in the city where he lives. That’s the primary purpose of the nonprofit: to give him an outlet to hand out food to homeless people. He’s well under age, so I’m not going to name him or his nonprofit or say where he is – I also really do not want to humiliate a kid, especially one that has such a big heart. But his nonprofit seems to be more about him than the homeless: the nonprofit has his name in the title, the web site for the organization is filled with many, many more photos of him than homeless people, and on the web site, a link for more information doesn’t say “About our organization,” but rather, “About me.”

He says he started his nonprofit because organizations serving the homeless turned him away as a volunteer because he’s “too young to help,” and that made him “sad.” What I suspect shelters and food kitchens actually said is that many of their clients are not allowed, legally, to be around anyone under 18, and the organization would, therefore, be causing those people to break the law by interacting with a child. They probably also told him that shelter staff need to put their resources into helping clients, not diverting such to ensuring the safety and heart-warming learning experience of underage volunteers.

The web site for this child’s organization has no information about the nutritional needs of the homeless or statistics on food availability for the homeless in this particular city. The web site has no information about the causes of homelessness. The aforementioned Cracked article correctly points out that when homeless people die, it’s most often from heart disease, substance abuse and trauma, rarely from hunger, although, of course, nutrition is a big challenge and hardship for many homeless people. The principle causes of food insecurity in the United States are unemployment, high housing costs, low wages and poverty, lack of access to SNAP (food stamps), and medical or health costs, but the web site for this child’s nonprofit never mentions any of these realities – it makes it sounds like he’s personally keeping these folks alive, that most homeless people die of starvation. Even if his nonprofit isn’t going to address any of those causes of hunger, shouldn’t those causes be mentioned somewhere on his site? This young man’s nonprofit could make a HUGE difference by helping people, particularly young people, understand why people are homeless, why they experience food insecurity – and they could take that knowledge to the ballot box, and make donation decisions based on that knowledge. Instead, this nonprofit, as demonstrated by the web site and by the media coverage of the nonprofit, is about making a little boy feel like he’s making a difference in the world, and making us feel good about him.

Robert Lupton, a veteran community activist based in Atlanta and author of Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, was quoted in an opinion piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying this about various volunteer groups that show up to hand out food in Atlanta parks: “The folks that come and hand out sandwiches? I call that harmful charity. It’s irresponsible… Who is this service activity for? To help the homeless? Or someone else?” I am not as down on charity as Lupton; in contrast to him, I do believe charity and aid will always be needed, that food banks and on-the-street food handout programs cannot and should not be replaced entirely by community development / empowerment / teach-a-man-to-fish programs, and I think there are very good things that can come from group volunteering projects in communities . But I do agree with him that a lot of high-profile volunteering seems more about making the giver have a feel-good experience and lots of great photos than focusing on the primary needs of those to be served.

No one is too young to volunteer, but there are volunteering activities in which a youth or child may NOT participate, because it would be illegal or inappropriate. Even with that restriction, there is no cause a young person can’t support in some meaningful way as a volunteer, including helping the homeless, and there are many ways a young person can volunteer, no matter how young he or she is. Volunteering is a great way to teach children about compassion and empathy, but it shouldn’t perpetuate old-fashioned ideas about volunteering, that it’s just about charity, and that its primary purpose is about well-off people giving food and items to poor people, but not talking about why there are poor people and not addressing those reasons. Volunteering by youth shouldn’t be primarily about making the kids feel good about themselves. Volunteering by youth should educate those young people about why causes are important, about community challenges, and/or about people very different from themselves. And volunteering should ALWAYS be primarily about what the person or cause needs most, not about the volunteers themselves. That means sometimes telling well-meaning people, even young people, “It’s great that you want to help, but the way you want to help is not what’s needed most and, in fact, can take valuable resources away from what we really need. And what we really need is…”

This is not a call for a volunteer motivation “purity” test. Volunteering doesn’t have to be selfless – as I have said many times in my workshops, I’m a part of Generation X, and I’ve never volunteered “to be nice” in my entire life; I’ve volunteered because I’m angry about a situation and want to do something about it, because I’m lonely or bored, because I want to explore careers, because I’m curious about an organization or activity, because I want to develop a skill or get experience for my résumé, because it sounds fun, because I want the fabulous t-shirt, and on and on. Almost any reason to volunteer is a great reason to volunteer. What I’m questioning are some of the reasons volunteering activities are created – what I’m saying is that they may actually do harm rather than good.

Even with all my disclaimers and all my work to date promoting volunteerism, I have a feeling this blog is still going to get me accused of being anti-volunteer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But vanity volunteering… sorry, I’m just not a fan.

For more on this subject – written by others:

Symptoms of a Vanity Nonprofit by Mark Fulop, from May 28, 2014.

The Most Outlandish Charity Trends: Is It About Vanity?, from MainStreet an online financial magazine & news site by TheStreet, in April 2014.

Vanity Charity, an opinion piece by Alan Cantor, published online on March 5, 2013

This 2012 Cracked article: “5 Popular Forms of Charity (That Aren’t Helping).

This New York Times Magazine article, “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” from July 2000.

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism , from the Pacific Standard, June 2014

This Boston Globe article, Corporate volunteers can be a burden for nonprofits, from March 2015

How to judge a charity: the five questions no one asked Kids Company (How do you know if a charity is changing lives?), 2 January 2016 article from The Spectator

Added Jan. 18: In The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems, Courtney Martin warns against a line of thinking which leads privileged young Westerners to think they can solve serious social problems in developing countries. Ms. Martin points to failed international development efforts like the now-infamous PlayPump, a piece of playground equipment that was meant to also pump underground water in remote communities. It was embraced by the development community — though the pumps didn’t, in fact, work. “It’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.”

And for more by me, on related topics:

OPB & Congress Think Volunteers are Free

It’s bad enough that more than 30 miles of dirt trails and primitive roads in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon were deliberately wrecked in 2014 by unsupervised volunteers who were supposed to be doing necessary, environmentally-appropriate trail maintenance, causing more than $200,000 in damage and who, according to this story on OPB News, are still being allowed to do trail maintenance.

But the comments in the OPB story by politicians and others about the role of volunteers has my blood boiling, not to mention that OPB did not call any volunteer management experts, such as those that are a part of the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association , to find an Oregon-based professional manager of volunteers to talk to, to find out about the vast amount of volunteer management resources and expertise that could help make things better and about the very high standards of various volunteer engagement programs. Or call Susan Ellis, the world’s foremost trainer and publisher regarding the management and support of volunteers. Or ME, right here in Oregon and registered on the OPB Public Insight Network to offer commentary regarding volunteer engagement!

The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, sponsored by Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has been proposed recently in the USA Congress. It would strongly encourage government agencies to increase volunteer involvement in trail maintenance, but it doesn’t include funding for agency oversight of volunteers – it doesn’t include any money for volunteer management, for recruiting volunteers, screening them, supervising them, etc. Why does it lack such funding? Well, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, a co-sponsor of the act, in his comment to OPB, shows exactly why:

“We don’t have the resources at the federal level to maintain these trails. And yet there’s a group of volunteers out there willing to do the work.”

Could you hear the unspoken “for free” at the end of Walden’s sentence? I could! In short: We have all this work to do. Let’s get some people to work for free to do it. That is a great summation of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act. And as any seasoned manager of volunteers or trainer knows, that’s a JOKE we frequently tell at conferences and workshops when trying to show what bad volunteer management looks like. Because NO ONE volunteers for that reason, and because of the implication that volunteers are free – and we know volunteers are NEVER free. Someone has to pay for the volunteers to be appropriately recruited, screened, trained, supervised and supported – otherwise, you end up with tragic consequences similar to what happened in Deschutes National Forest- or worse.

That’s the crux of all these stories from OPB about what happened in Oregon and about this pending bill: volunteers save money! That’s why they are involved!

Here’s a proposal for those managing public lands, and something OPB should consider in future stories about any volunteer engagement, good or bad, at any agency: maybe volunteers are actually the best people to undertake certain activities, like running campgrounds, teaching about Leave No Trace principles and staffing the front desks of ranger stations, not because they are unpaid, but because such involvement allows members of the public to experience first-hand how public lands are administered and how to support the public in experiencing them. Or because of the particular passion or approach volunteers bring to the task that paid employees might not. Or because members of the public might like interacting with a volunteer, rather than someone paid to be there. Or because volunteer involvement is per an organization’s commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in the org’s work and offer feedback that isn’t financially-based (they aren’t being paid) and endorse the importance of public lands through their investment of time. Say volunteer involvement is part of an organization’s commitment to both transparency and in creating opportunities for community investment in its work. Involve volunteers because it allows people to be involved in the administration and enjoyment of public lands without having to give up whatever they do professionally. Those are reasons that INSPIRE people to volunteer – not, “we have all this work to do, please come do it.”

Emphasizing the money saved in involving unpaid staff also tends to create hostilities with paid staff, who are often angry at the idea of volunteers being involved in order to eliminate paid positions (and they SHOULD be angry at such comments!). The links at the end of this blog explore this and other dangers in emphasizing that the primary reason to involve volunteers is because they aren’t paid.

Instead, organizations that administer public lands should create a mission statement for your volunteer engagement that has NOTHING to do with saving money. And learn to talk about the value of volunteer engagement. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve dollar figures.

Oh, but wait, there’s more…. there’s the comments in the story from Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a national watchdog organization. First up from him:

“Relying on volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.”

The implication, of course, is that volunteers are unreliable, can’t be trusted, are incompetent, etc., and that paychecks are magical and make people better workers – thus, only paid employees can do such work properly! Here’s what the quote SHOULD say, to be accurate:

Relying on untrained, unsupervised volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.

And we could substitute the phrase “paid employees” for “volunteers,” and the new sentence would be accurate as well.

Mr. Stahl also made my head explode with his outrageous statement:

“it would be nice if we could hold volunteers to high standards, for even acceptable ones, but you get what you pay for.”

What an insult to every volunteer firefighter, every volunteer emergency rescue person, every Peace Corps member, and every other volunteer out there that goes through hours and hours and hours of training, over many weeks, even months, often right alongside professionals, to master the skills necessary to do their very serious, even dangerous work. These volunteers are held to high standards – and volunteers who can’t meet those standards are FIRED. They are removed from service, just like a paid employee. That loud “bam” you heard if you were listening to the OPB story in Oregon? It was me, hitting the table in front of me out of outrage over this shameful, insulting statement. My dog is still terrified of me over that.

Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest, had to learn of the vital importance of the basics of volunteer management the hard way. He says now, “It’s not as simple as welcoming a volunteer through the door, handing that person a shovel and saying, ‘Go do good work. There’s direction, guidance and attention that’s needed.”

Oh, Mr. Larkin, there are vasts amounts of resources that could have helped you manage and support these volunteers right from the get go. Some resources are free. Many aren’t, but they cost much, much less than $200,000. I wish you had known about them, and I wish you had the funding to tap into them – the books, the workshops, the conferences… even university-level certificate programs on managing volunteers.

Congress must realize volunteers aren’t free, and that there will be financial costs in involving volunteers in trail maintenance on US public lands – and that they are going to have to fund those costs. Otherwise, we’re going to have much bigger bills in terms of trail damage – and worse. I’ve created this petition at Change.org, calling on the bill’s co-sponsors to amend the act so that it provides the resources necessary for this increased volunteer engagement on public lands to be successful. If you are in the USA, or you are a USA citizen abroad, please read over the petition, consider signing it, and share it with your network!

And OPB: next time you are doing a story about volunteers, please call me, or the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, to find a volunteerism expert to comment on your story, give you guidance, etc.

Also see Volunteers trying to help on their own, a blog about how DIY “trail improvements” by unsanctioned, unsupervised volunteers are causing serious damage to a nature preserve, and what to do if you discover that an official volunteer of your organization is doing activities in the name of your organization but outside of the approval of your program.

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement: